UPPER WEST SIDE — Though the Alexander Robertson School is 225 years old, the private elementary school on West 95th Street has stayed small and intimate, and hasn't built up the cachet of neighboring Trinity School or Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School.
And while Irwin Shlachter was brought on in February to help the 100-student school grow and raise its profile, he is also aiming to maintain its wholesomeness and charm, he said.
Shlachter, 66, who will officially begin in July, is no stranger to the neighborhood. He was the head of the Rodeph Sholom School for 25 years where he said he grew the school from 150 students to 725 students.
He claims similar success at the Claremont Preparatory — now called Léman Manhattan Preparatory School — increasing enrollment from 54 students to 550 students in his four years there, he said.
"I’m a dreamer and a builder," he said.
His nine years as a public school teacher in the South Bronx and in Co-op City, beginning in 1969, showed him that public schools' large classroom and fixed curriculum isn't attuned enough to learning differences, he said.
The small class sizes at the Alexander Robertson School, which are never larger than 14 students and often as small as 6, offer the flexibility to tailor a student's learning, he said.
DNAinfo New York sat down with Shlachter to hear about his plans for leading the school.
What are your goals in terms of curriculum changes?
We’re going to introduce Mandarin in our pre-k, kindergarten. I think it’s better to start when they’re 5 or 6. The capacity for learning a second language is better with young children. They imitate the accent better. Most schools fear introducing a language at that age. I disagree. They really have the capacity to learn and retain it.
We're going to be working with the Smithsonian Science Education Center. What makes it unique is it's an inquiry based system and it's hands-on. As young as 4 or 5, the students get to do an experiment. Let’s say dissecting a flower and finding out what the makeup of the plant is. ... Because it’s inquiry based and hands-on, those are the things that go into your long-term memory and you tend not to forget and they become important. The younger you introduce students to subjects that are generally taught in middle or high school the more confident they become.
I'm [also] introducing the Columbia Teacher’s College Writer’s Workshop. It’s a way of having students as young as 5 feel that they’re authors and publishers.
Most independent schools serve higher grades as well. What are the advantages of serving only elementary students?
It’s a very good idea. When you admit a student into kindergarten you don’t know what kind of learner they’re going to be. You don’t know that that’s the school that they ought to be in. Being in a school that ends in fifth grade allows us to focus on just that period in their intellectual and developmental growth. Let’s just see how this child grows and what else can we do to help them.
You were appointed to work on “revitalizing and reestablishing the school’s prominence.” How do you plan to do that?
The school doesn’t have a bad reputation. It’s that it’s been this well-kept secret. The people who are here took it for granted that it was a wonderful school and they didn’t see a need to publicize it.
The fact that I served a total of 30 years in a total of two schools gives me a leg up because I know the other players in town. I'm going to all the meetings with the heads of school, New York Parents League, Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York — those are all avenues that are going to open up opportunities for us. The other thing I plan to do is to put the school through an accreditation process... This is a city where people engage in designer label mentality. If you’re a member of the club then they’ll come and look at you.
Your school puts a lot of emphasis on ethics. Why is that?
I think with younger students teaching them proper and correct behavior and respect for all human beings, frowning on bullying… I think it sets the tone early on for them as being part of an upstanding community.
How do you make the academics rigorous, but keep students from feeling stressed?
We set high standards, but we build into it the ability to judge students as individuals. If you treat students as individuals, then there isn’t one specific goal for every student. The growth spurt academically is at different points. It’s not a fine science. If you linger and you stress how many students scored in the top 1 percentile — it’s not a true measure of who you are.
You’re known for connecting with families and building long, strong relationships. Why is that a priority of yours and how will you continue in that vein?
If you are genuine and sincere in what you’re doing and planning and saying, people take you more seriously and respect you for that. Parents respond to what they believe is a safe happy and very active environment — in the sense of learning. Once they come in and they buy into your formula, they bring other people. It’s all by word of mouth.